Genre: Historical fiction
“The Sweet Girl” follows Pythias (Pytho), daughter of famous philosopher, Aristotle. It takes place in Ancient Greece, fourth century BCE. It is based on real people, surrounding true events, but fills in fictitious gaps of what little we know today about Pythias.
When she was only a few years old, the mother of Pythias died, leaving just her and her father, Aristotle. In the coming years, Aristotle would take on his servant, Herpyllis, as his consort. The two of them would have Nico, the younger half-brother of Pythias.
Pythias has a very strong bond with her father. She shares a similar likeness for biology, examining skulls and dissecting animals with one another. Her father, who she refers to as Daddy, lets her read many scientific books of his choosing, along with some poetry. He calls her “little Athena,” nodding to her wise mind.
Pythias even follows Daddy along to his school, where she has intellectual discussions with his fellow scholars, while she is praised by them, who see her as a boy. But things change when Pythias gets her first period and becomes a woman. Herpyllis takes her to the temple for her sacred ritual. From here forward, Daddy treats her much differently.
A boy is sent to their home who Daddy takes on pridefully as a son. His birth name is Jason, but Daddy changes his name to “Myrmex.” Daddy stops taking Pythias to his school, instead taking Myrmex. Pythias is struck with envy as the two of them take on a volatile relationship, getting into a horribly violent fight with each other.
There is the rational mind and the animal body… I understand, finally, that Daddy suffered so because he was practically all mind and no animal… I am lesser. Is it because I’m a girl? Daddy would say so. But that theory doesn’t account for the animal natures of Nico, of Myrmex.
Following the death of Alexander the Great, the family now has a target on their back and are forced to flee Athens. Aristotle’s connection to the king as former teacher was the only thing that kept their Macedonian bloodline in prestige. After settling into their new home, very soon Daddy becomes sick. He makes it clear to Pythias that she is to marry a distant cousin who is more than twice her age once he passes.
Following his passing, the rest of the family is forced to split up. Pythias has developed lustful feeling for Myrmex overtime, and now desires to marry him. However, he flees the house without a warning, and Pythias is convinced that he will return at any moment.
In Pythias’s late teen years, going into early adulthood, she navigates her limited options as a woman and learns so much about the world that she was once sheltered from. She temporarily joins the cult of Artemis, the virgin huntress — here, she finds her sense of spirituality and love for the goddess, but learns that the priesthood itself is corrupt. She later is taken into sanctuary of a midwife and abortionist, where her eyes are opened up to new layers. She explores her animal instincts among different men. She experiences both the wealth and luxury of a princess, as well as the fear and coldness of a beggar.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The historical aspect felt very real to me, of course the novel is not meant to account for exact events that once took place, as there is little renaming knowledge of Pythias. I believe the author does a great job at imagining what her character would’ve been, or what any strong woman’s character would be at this age in ancient times.
The title is somewhat ironic, as Pythias is anything but “a sweet girl.” In fact, she doesn’t even enjoy sweet food — just salty. She’s rugged, sporty, unkempt, and far more interested in books than marriage. Of course, there reaches a point when lustful thoughts crowd her mind, which she attempts to shoo away as best as she can. But her greatest fear of arranged marriage is the thought of her husband not allowing her to read the books she’d like.
As a child, Pythias is compared to Athena, because her mind is so strong and bright. Like the wise goddess, she is witty and clever. Yet with growth, she finds herself more close to Artemis, the goddess of hunt and independence. With her womanhood also comes a bravery and feistiness that she perhaps shied away from as a young child.
What I enjoyed most about this book is the historical aspect. Although, I found it fascinating that this ancient retelling can be compared to any modern-day coming-of-age tale. The emotions and feelings that she goes through can be compared to any young woman in any time period — discovering the chaos, complicatedness, and corruption of the world — rebelling from your fate until it all circles back to you so naturally.
Finishing the book certainly left me with a bittersweet aftertaste. Life comes with many losses and disappointments, but we are creatures of habit who eventually adjust. We don’t get our way, most of the time, but somehow it all still works out.
Rating: 5/5 stars